Splartch, Jorge, and Donk were sitting together in their boardroom, along with the head of the legal department, Loke, and the leadership consultant they had hired, Jonathan.
Splartch, Jorge and Donk had started out effectively and rapidly positioned their company as a rising star in the Bay Area, but as their size and scale grew, they quickly started to encounter problems. This is what had inspired them to look for recommendations about support around their leadership, and eventually hire Jonathan.
Things with Jonathan had started out very promising. He had come in to meet the team and had distinguished very quickly some of what was going on. Jonathan had called out many of the dysfunctions on the team. He’d pointed out Splartch’s tendency to interrupt and overrun the other team members, and to stop listening as soon as she thought she had the right answer. Donk’s complete lack of delegation, and consequently, his impossibly full plates, had been identified early on as an issue as well. Jonathan had provided Splartch and Donk with some ways to practice doing things differently, and they had worked at first. The team had been excited about practising something new.
Initially the team’s enthusiasm and commitment was sufficient to have both Splartch and Donk practising something different, but as time went on, things had reverted. Rather than create the shift they had hoped for, it seemed like this had been a temporary fix at best.
And that was why, three months after initially hiring Jonathan, they were in the boardroom, ready to have an awkward conversation about moving on.
Jorge began the conversation, “Jonathan, it’s been really great working with you, and we’ve gotten a lot from what you’ve provided. We’ve identified some of the tendencies on our team that aren’t working, and now we have some tools to help us address those things. What we notice though is that we haven’t shifted yet, and actually, it’s like we made a positive change for a while, but now we’ve slipped and gone back. So, it’s clear to us that we just need to buckle down and recommit to these things. And so we think it’s time to move on from our work together, at least until we put into practice what you’ve given us.”
Jonathan smiled warmly at Jorge, and nodded his head.
“That makes sense. Let me see if I’ve got this clear, before we go anywhere else: you feel like you’ve identified what isn’t working, and you have the tools you need to shift it. For example, Donk is overwhelmed with work, and so the issue is to just have them start delegating more. Even though you’re clear on that, and Donk started doing that, he’s slipped back, and so the solution you see to apply is simply to double-down on your efforts and willpower and make it happen.”
Jonathan made eye-contact with the team members to check-in before proceeding.
“And since you’re clear on that being the path forward, you feel there’s not much need for me, and would like to move on. Do I have that right?”
The team nodded their heads — that was exactly how they felt.
Jonathan nodded as well, before proceeding, “Okay! I think I’ve got that. And it makes complete sense. If the issue is really just one of willpower and practising from here, there wouldn’t be much else for us to do.” He paused, and then continued, “So we can do that if you’d like. I know we made an agreement together that there are no early-departures in our journey together, and I know I checked in with each of you to make sure you were onboard for that.”
The team members nodded their heads, and looked towards Loke, who had already assured them that she could help them get out of this agreement.
Jonathan noted this and carried on, “And I know we even had a conversation about how you would get to a point where you wanted to quit before this process was over. Do you remember that?”
Splartch, Jorge and Donk nodded, wearily. They were concerned that this was the part where they would have to rely on Loke to do her thing.
But Jonathan continued on, gently, “But even though we spoke to all that, I’m not interested in forcing you to do something — that’s not my job, and that would actually be diminishing your leadership; the opposite of what I’m here for. What I would like, however, is that we have a conversation about what’s going on, before you make any decisions. Would that be okay?”
The team were a little wary of some kind of trap — they had been talking about how to move on from this relationship for the last few days, and their concern was that re-opening the door to conversation would dissolve the momentum they had created. It was hard enough for the team to make any decision in unity these days.
Jonathan looked at each of them in turn, before speaking again, “Okay, it looks like I have your consent for that. Are we all clear that I’m not interested in trying to convince you to keep working with me? I’m not attached to that outcome. I’d just like to help you see with a little more altitude where we’re at in our work together.”
Jorge spoke for the team, “Sure Jonathan, we’re okay with that.”
Jonathan nodded and then addressed Splartch, “Splartch, you’ve been practising breathing, slowing down, and listening more to what people are saying, rather than cutting them off and deciding you’re right. And you’ve also been practising noticing when you really feel right. Is that correct?”
Splartch nodded, “Yes, and it worked great for a while, but I notice I just get incredibly impatient and sick of talking to people. I appreciate the angle you’re offering me Jonathan, but it just doesn’t work for me. I’m not the way you think I am. I can’t just listen to people. I’m geared to let them know what I think and to move fast. I just can’t do slow.”
Jonathan had been in this conversation hundreds of times before, and it still broke his heart each time he heard someone relate to themselves as fixed and unable to grow beyond their current sweet-spot. He set that aside and got present to Splartch’s possibility.
“That makes sense Splartch. You’ve been trying to practise something new, and it sounds like it’s been really challenging.”
Splartch interrupted, “Not just challenging, Jonathan. I’m saying it’s impossible. It’s just not how I’m geared.”
Jonathan nodded, “That’s definitely one conclusion you could draw, and it makes sense given what you’ve experienced. I’m not interested in trying to change your mind, but I want to check and see if you’re open to exploring a different possibility?”
Splartch nodded, warily.
“Sweet — thank you. So, I’m going to assert that you actually do have the capacity to grow beyond this. And it’s not actually that you aren’t geared this way, it’s just that you’ve been practising a very specific way for the last forty years of your life. Imagine if you had learned how to dribble a basketball with your right hand for the last forty years of your life, and someone invited you to practise dribbling with your left hand. That would be really challenging right?”
Splartch thought about that briefly before agreeing, “Sure, that would be annoying.”
Jonathan laughed, “Yes! Super annoying — and hard. Really hard. And it probably wouldn’t feel like you were doing the right thing, and you would probably be inclined to go back to what you know, right?” Splartch nodded, splartchily. “And since it would feel so unnatural, and using your right hand felt so natural, it would make a lot of sense to conclude that you just must be meant to dribble with your right hand alone, right?”
Splartch interrupted, “Yes, sure, but we’re not talking about basketball here. We’re talking about listening to people drone on.”
Jonathan nodded encouragingly, “Yes! It’s even worse, because we’re dealing with obnoxious, dimwitted humans directly, so it’s going to be even more challenging! At least with a basketball you can practise when no one else is around.”
Splartch smiled in spite of herself. It sounded like Jonathan genuinely understood her experience.
“So, first of all, I’m going to say of course you tried to solve this by listening, and of course you gave it up. Currently, this is an infuriating practise for you, it’s forcing you to confront whatever it is that has you cut people off and move forward once you think you have the right answer. We haven’t even looked at that yet — all we’ve done is given you a practise designed to push you into confrontation with yourself. And, in the face of that confrontation, you’ve done what makes the most sense: tried earnestly for a while, and then give up and rationalized staying where you are.”
Jonathan turned to the rest of the leadership team and addressed them all, including Loke, “Just to be clear, this is exactly how it’s going to go with your own direct reports. They’re going to take on a practise that puts them in confrontation with their habits and patterns, struggle, give up, and then want to resign themselves to the way they are.”
Jonathan turned back to Splartch, “Are you okay if we explore this a little more deeply? Maybe you’re right, but I’d like to keep going with you, if that’s okay.”
Splartch was a little more engaged by this point. “Sure, I’m down.”
“Awesome. So, first of all, without making it wrong, I notice it showed up earlier right here — you interrupted me to share how you felt.” Splartch was about to interrupt to justify herself, but Jonathan stopped her, “It’s totally fine — you don’t need to justify doing it. There’s nothing wrong with that tendency. Rather than justify it, which is another way of making it right and will just keep solidifying it, would you be willing to take a look at what you were feeing that triggered that?”
Splartch was annoyed. She really wanted to explain herself, but what Jonathan was saying was landing for her. She took a look.
“Well, I think I felt like I had gotten the point, and I didn’t want to waste any more time. I felt like I already knew the rest of what you were going to say, so what was the point of waiting.”
Jonathan nodded vigorously, “Yes! Exactly. And if you’re correct about that assumption, then cutting me off is a good thing. We can save some time right?” Splartch nodded back, “Yeah, definitely.”
“And has this conversation gone where you expected it to go since that point?”
“No, not really, I suppose.”
“Great — so here’s what I want to invite you to consider: first, consider that you aren’t the fixed object you think you are. Maybe instead of holding yourself as unable to change, you just holding this as practising something new. Remember: we’re expanding your range here. You can always go back to being efficient and right,” Donk chuckled in the background. “But to be the leader you are here to be, you’re going to need to give people the space and opportunity to surprise and humble you.”
Splartch sat with that. Jonathan gave her some time before continuing.
“Second, I want you to consider that this isn’t about willpower and knuckling down even harder. You can bite your lip and listen to the moron across from you if that’s the game you want to play, but nothing is going to change from that place, right?”
Splartch laughed and agreed. “But Jonathan, sometimes they really are morons!”
Jonathan laughed as well, “I know! Believe me, I can relate and I know your experience. But that way of holding people is going to make it so much harder for you to grow into the leader you are here to be. Here’s the third thing I’m going to invite you to consider: You relating to people as morons is your shortcoming as a leader, not theirs. Your job is to relate to them as brilliant, and when you can’t see their brilliance, to practice getting deeply, quietly curious about it, and listening deep enough that you can hear it.”
A look of hopelessness came over Splartch’s face. “How on earth am I going to do that?”
Jonathan smiled warmly, “Exactly the way I just said. Notice when you’re being right, consider that that is just a habit of yours, rather than objective truth, and then get curious about the brilliance over there on the other side of the conversation.”
Jonathan wrote on the whiteboard behind him and then turned to the entire team, “Every time you are right about something, you are diminishing your capacity as leader. You are taking away from your ability to hear the brilliance on the other side of the conversation. Heck, you’re taking away from the ability to hear anything on the other side of the conversation, other than them being wrong.”
Jonathan came back to Splartch, “Spartch, I’m curious — would practising and developing this ability to listen to people differently have an impact anywhere else in your life?”
Splartch sat and thought. “I’m not sure. Probably not that much… I mean, possibly with my kids. And my friends might…”Splartch’s eyes were looking up and to the left, and a dawning awareness was coming over here face. “Oh my god, I mean, this is like, the pattern that keeps playing out in my relationship with my wife. She always says I don’t listen to her. And then I of course explain everything she said to me in great detail, and why she’s wrong.”
Splartch’s flabber was clearly ghasted.
Jonathan watched her in this exploration with love and openness before saying, “Okay, great — are you willing to practise this for the next couple of weeks?”
Splartch responded slowly, still considering the ramifications of this way of being in her life, “Yes. Yes, definitely.”
Jonathan turned to the rest of the team, “Okay, I’d like to keep looking with all of you, but I’m not here to force you down any path, I’d like to continue looking at what’s showing up for you, and then we can talk about what’s next, including whether or not this is where we end our time together. Sound good?”
The team nodded.
Excerpt from The Dirtfarmers Who Shattered Reality Using Their Minds